King Den's sandal label

Contributed by British Museum

Label from a pair of sandals belonging to the ancient Egyptian king, Den. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

The figure holding a mace on this hippopotamus ivory label is King Den. He was a member of the first dynasty of rulers that united Egypt into a single state. This label was attached to one of Den's sandals and placed in his tomb when he died. In front of Den a much smaller enemy cowers. Hieroglyphs on the label celebrate, 'the first occasion of smiting the east'. They refer to King Den's military conquests in Sinai, eastern Egypt.

Why did civilisation develop in Egypt?

The world's first states and cities developed in river valleys. Along the Nile in Egypt the annual flooding created a fertile valley and delta ideal for growing crops. Egypt's individual towns were unified and governed by a single king, described in later times by the title 'pharaoh'. The pharaoh, however, was more than just a leader; he was also a representative of the gods and the focus for the state's religion. Egypt would be ruled by pharaohs for the next 3000 years.

In Den's time the role of 'keeper of the sandals' was a high rank with privileges

Who was King Den?

Den was the fourth ruler of the first dynasty of Egypt and the first to adopt the title ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’. This later became the title used for all Egyptian kings.

When he came to power, the dynasty was well established throughout the country and Egyptian authority was being extended by military expeditions to the south and east, into Nubia and the Sinai.

Most of our knowledge about Den comes from his tomb at Abydos and the tombs of his high officials at Saqqara. The limited inscribed material available adds some interesting details, such as the fact that Den celebrated a jubilee festival and took part in religious ceremonies.

Although the dynastic family came originally from southern Egypt, the court ruled from the city of Memphis in the north. Den chose to make his own tomb in the south, returning to the region of his origin.

This tomb and its contents have provided most of the information we possess about the material culture of his reign. The tomb was a large brick-built monument with a burial chamber sunk into the desert gravel, floored with granite slabs but lined and roofed entirely with wood.

In front of the tomb stood a pair of monumental tombstones inscribed with the name of Den. The idea of a stairway into the burial-chamber was invented during Den’s reign and used in his tomb as well as those of others. This enabled the roof of the tomb to be finished before the funeral.

The wealth of Egypt at this time is reflected in the array of goods placed in the tomb as offerings for the dead king. Even after repeated raids by tomb-robbers, the remains of the tomb equipment included pieces of fine furniture inlaid with ivory, tools, weapons, metal, stone and pottery vessels, jewellery and even games.

In addition to these gifts, the king was also accompanied into the afterlife by members of his personal household staff, over 130 individuals, who were buried in rows of graves around his tomb. Each of these graves originally had its own small tomb-marker of limestone, inscribed with the name of the occupant.

Higher ranking officials were buried in their own tomb. The names of certain high officials who served under Den have been preserved on clay seal-impressions. The most important were named Hemaka and Ankhka, and their tombs on the desert at Saqqara were almost as lavishly equipped as that of Den himself.

Jeffery Spencer, Curator, British Museum

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  • 1. At 20:13 on 21 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    When it came to smiting Den was no different to Narmer or the town butcher. A spike. A hammer. One good crack. A little lobotomising and you could have a right good laugh at the insensible yet living corpse waving its arms about like a zombie. No longer a king crying defiance in the name of his God. Now just another defeated moron dangling from the prow of the pharaoh?s ship.

    Amongst the young and the innocent of every country it?s a popular myth even today, arising natural as it does in consequence of the processes of upbringing that intelligence, the sort of which ones parents imbue, must result in a society managed and over seen by ?The Wise?. Ones whose knowledge encompasses all problems and whose compassion enable them to rule righteous. Not gods but the next best thing.

    What then the societies who were encouraged to believe in their leaders as Gods? No wonder such members were willing to be put to death so as to accompany their ?God?, as was the case of Den, to the glorious ?After-life? of all after-lives as it was promised to them also.

    Of course it was also a very good way of ridding the newly promoted incarnation from making the sort of frightful errors in the memory department that would undermined the whole of the working theology.

    Such societies must have thought nothing of erasing opposing theologically minded peoples. Better that ?they shall not exist? than the other way round as stated on this sandal label. It must have been revered by the happy innocent who tidied this cupboard and who spent the rest of his days quaking at the thought of his God?s power had he misplaced one of the precious? foot ware.
    Pity the innocent today who confidently believes in wisdom and leadership. As far as I can see nothing has changed. Expect history to repeat itself yet again.
    Was that your point Ian? Great series.

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  • 2. At 13:53 on 17 May 2011, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    For a sandal label it?s quite an image isn?t it.
    I was wondering whether King Den was known for setting out new boundaries? In which case the pictorial message would appear to be ? ?Take even one step across the boundary that I?ve set and even if it is in pretence of making obeisance to me and you leave one foot behind the boundary as if to say you haven?t truly left your territory you still will get a jolly good crack on the head for your efforts!!?.

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